I have led more funerals than I can remember in 4 decades of pastoral ministry. My calling includes sharing God’s wisdom with wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters in their times of grief. God knows I have lived close to death in this last decade – Dad, Mom, wife, father-in-law, nephew, brother. Somehow I have managed that neat mental trick of convincing myself that while others die my own mortality is but a possibility far removed. But, yesterday, it was real. Standing in a mausoleum where we were entombing the body of my late wife’s aunt, while my hand rested on the coffin and I said those words of committal – “ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the certain hope of the Resurrection” – I thought “Jerry, you too will die and these words will be said over your coffin.” Pleasant, isn’t it?
There was no fear in that moment just a jolting sense of time’s passing. How I have spent my 65 years on this planet? When my kids sort through the ‘stuff’ I leave behind, what will they find? What will the record of my day to day existence say about what I valued? When somebody gets up to talk about Jerry at a funeral sometime in the future will they have to fib a bit to be kind? As to legacy, I know that about a decade after I’m gone the waves will have washed my tracks from the sands of time. Those thoughts were not as grim in the thinking as they seem in the telling. The wisdom of this Psalm was renewed in my mind: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12, NIV)
Any thought of mortality, for me at least, involves my Christian hope, eternal life in Christ Jesus. I have boldly preached His words of promise – “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.” (John 14:2, NIV) What will those words will mean when my diagnosis is terminal or when I have come to that age when my mortality is too obvious to ignore? Will death’s approach bring fear or dread, or will I leave without regrets, in an expectation of my ongoing existence in God’s Presence?
Timothy Keller, who served as pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, NY, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer about a year ago. It is a deadly cancer that demanded he realize his own appointment with death lay not far in the future. In a recent article published in The Atlantic, he writes this.
“As death, the last enemy, became real to my heart, I realized that my beliefs would have to become just as real to my heart, or I wouldn’t be able to get through the day. …
Kathy and I have discovered that the less we attempt to make this world into a heaven, the more we are able to enjoy it. No longer are we burdening it with demands impossible for it to fulfill. We have found that the simplest things—from sun on the water and flowers in the vase to our own embraces, sex, and conversation—bring more joy than ever. This has taken us by surprise. This change was not an overnight revolution. As God’s reality dawns more on my heart, slowly and painfully and through many tears, the simplest pleasures of this world have become sources of daily happiness. It is only as I have become, for lack of a better term, more heavenly minded that I can see the material world for the astonishingly good divine gift that it is.”
He admits that in spite of teaching and writing of Christian faith, he had to do much work with both head and heart to find that peace. Wisely, Keller turned to the Word, to the assurances of the goodness of God. He studied, anew, the Resurrection of Jesus, which is the linchpin of Christian hope. Indeed, Paul says as much – “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (1 Corinthians 15:14, NIV) Paraphrasing Keller, “If Jesus was raised from the dead, then we must pay attention to everything He says. If He was not raised, then we need not pay Him any attention at all.”
As we move through this 2021 Lenten season, let’s do what Christians have done through the ages –
reflect on the grim darkness of the approaching Cross while
knowing of the sure coming of the glorious dawn of Resurrection morning.
Both are necessary to our faith. We cannot fully appreciate the hope to which we are called in Christ IF we are too much in love with this present life. When we accept the inevitability of our own death – hopefully later rather than sooner – we gain a higher view of our lives. We will more readily let go of the trinkets of our existence to take hold of that which matters most. And what is that?
Our word from the Word reminds us of what remains! “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:12-13, NIV)
Let’s love God -heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love others well. What else actually matters?
I searched the world but it couldn’t fill me
Man’s empty praise and treasures that fade
Are never enough
Then You came along and put me back together
And every desire is now satisfied here in Your love
Oh there’s nothing better than You
There’s nothing better than You
Lord there’s nothing
Nothing is better than You
I’m not afraid to show You my weakness
My failures and flaws
Lord You’ve seen them all
And You still call me friend
‘Cause the God of the mountain
Is the God of the valley
And there’s not a place
Your mercy and grace won’t find me again
You turn mourning to dancing
You give beauty for ashes
You turn shame into glory
You’re the only one who can
You turn graves into gardens
You turn bones into armies
You turn seas into highways
You’re the only one who can
Brandon Lake | Chris Brown | Steven Furtick | Tiffany Hudson © 2019 Music by Elevation Worship Publishing (Admin. by Essential Music Publishing LLC)
Maverick City Publishing Worldwide (Admin. by Heritage Worship Publishing)
Bethel Music Publishing
CCLI License # 810055
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